- Street signs at 20th and Lake in North Omaha, Nebraska.
There are unsung intersections throughout North Omaha. These are places the past treated as important and meaningful, packed with businesses and enterprise, possibilities and the future. Unfortunately, almost every one of them met it’s demise when white flight kicked in and the community ran into hard times. This is the story of one of those unsung intersections that was a big deal for a short time.
The Early Years
Before the 1880s, Lake Street didn’t exist. North Omaha was the patch of the city between Dodge Street and Cuming, and it was packed. There were houses, apartments, stores, warehouses, churches, synagogues and more. However, in the area around the present-day intersection of 20th and Lake Streets, there were several country estates.
|Omaha Fire Department Station #14 is located at 2032 Lake Street, just off the northwest corner of this intersection. The picture here is from the 1910s, and included the station, crew, and fire engines.|
Lake Buys the Land
A judge named George B. Lake owned a section of land south of Locust and north of Izard. When lots started getting sold in Lake’s Addition, they cost between $500 and $850 dollars. That was around 1878. Within a decade, Omaha’s professional baseball team started playing at the intersection because of its easy access via trams and horse drawn streetcars.
By 1883, Lake Street had been laid out between the now-renamed Elm and Spruce Streets starting at Sherman Avenue, which is now called North 16th Street. The intersection was almost exactly a mile and a half from the main post office, and Omahans started moving into the area en masse.
- The Jay Burns Baking Company at N. 20th and Cuming was typical of the businesses early Near North Side working class residents would’ve worked at.
The earliest homes in the area were tiny houses by today’s standards, as lower-wage earners settled in from the nearby Union Pacific shops and other enterprises along Cuming Street and similar areas. Most of these workers walked to and from their jobs, and weren’t excited about long commutes. As the city grew, people were able to take the horse-drawn streetcars to get to where they were going, until after a while the electric streetcar moved in. Around this point, houses started becoming more significant and rowhouses were getting built in the Near North Side, as well. Suddenly, the community around 20th and Lake was full. City services started evolving. By the 1880s, early street paving campaigns lined Lake Street first with cedar blocks, and later with granite. Then the boom really happened.
- This is an overhead picture of what the intersection used to be at North 20th and Lake Streets. Number 1 is where the fire station was; Number 2 is where the Goodlett Building was; Number 3 is where Lake School was; and number 4 is where the grocery store and meat market were.
A Neighborhood Blossoms
Faith communities were some of the earliest institutions in the Near North Side neighborhood. St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran was a Danish congregation organized in 1886 that built a church near 20th and Lake at North 21st and Burdette Streets in 1887. In 1907, they built a new church at North 20th and Burdette Streets, the church’s home for another four decades. Showing how folks moved into the neighborhood around 20th and Lake, the First German Presbyterian Church opened at North 18th and Cuming Streets in 1882. By 1910 they had built another church at 20th and Willis; it became known as Bethany Presbyterian Church and remained there for several decades.
In 1888, the City of Omaha Board of Education decided to build a new school in the neighborhood. There were enough new houses, businesses and other institutions in the area to warrant the building. Judge Lake either sold the land or donated it to the city’s schools. The city responded by building a massive new school.
A block away at Burdette Street and in the same year, the Ak-Sar-Ben Den was built at 20th and Lake Streets. The wooden building was 200 x 300 feet, and according to varying accounts, could seat approximately 8,000 people along with standing room for another 8,000 people. The Coliseum was a concert and convention center that also was used for bicycle races and walking and running contests.
Around that same time, formal and informal baseball teams took up residence on a sandlot on the intersection. Playing there for more than two decades, they rightfully thought the corner belonged to them. The Omaha Public Library also started bringing a mobile library to the intersection around the 1880s, and continued this for 50 years or more.
The the 1910s, the Lake School neighborhood in the Near North Side was built out. It was a cruel misfortune when the Easter Sunday Tornado of 1913 struck. Slathering the entire neighborhood with debris and doom, more than 100 people died within eight blocks of this intersection. Many of the buildings around the intersection were destroyed, too.
When the 1913 Easter Day Tornado happened, Edward McEachon Coal and Feed store was located at 1924 Lake Street. Down the street at 2002 Lake Street, Tom Johnson’s grocery store with meats and bakery was hit hard. However, the mainstays on the intersection were largely unscathed, and the neighborhood kept grew back. By 1916, Snyder’s Pharmacy was at full speed, and several other businesses flourished, too.
A Gilded Intersection?
Since the Great Depression, the Near North Side neighborhood around 20th and Lake has gone through many different incarnations. By the 1930s, the neighborhood has been completely in-filled. Grocery stores, clothing stores, professional offices, synagogues and churches crowded this hotbed of Lake Street. Every lot was filled with a house or business or school or otherwise, while every possibility was being explored for the area.
The Black community was strong around North 20th and Lake, as it was throughout North Omaha. The only Black Catholic parish in Nebraska was founded nearby, and today St. Benedict the Moor Church has served the community for almost a century. Christian Discipleship Church at 1823 Lake Street was active for a longtime, too, while there were several other African American institutions nearby. The positive image of Black culture at 24th and Lake spread east down Lake Street and infected that intersection with vitality as well.
- The Goodlett Building was on the northeast corner. Built in the late 1880s, it stood into the 1950s. Click on the pictures to learn more. The building housed a variety of professional services, and a laundromat on the first floor. There was a flower shop there for more than two decades starting in the 1950s.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the neighborhood just to the south of the intersection was a Jewish enclave called Little Russia. Starting in the early 1880s, Russian, Hungarian and Romanian Jewish immigrants started moved into the area between Kellom and Lake Schools. Escaping persecution at home, these Russians came to Omaha for many reasons, including its well-established Jewish community. Among them was a child named Tillie Olsen. After going to Lake School and leaving Omaha High School early, she was a worker and labor organizer in the 1930s in South Omaha’s meatpacking industry, organizing the United Packinghouse Workers of America in the area. Influenced by her parents’ Jewish socialist leanings and North Omaha, she was an activist all her life. Using her experiences, Olsen wrote highly influential novels and some nonfiction books. She’s regarded as one of the most important Jewish authors of the century.
The synagogue for Little Russia was the Beth Hamedresh Ados Yeshuren Congregation at 25th and Seward, which operated into the early 1960s. The Jewish Old Folks Home was nearby at 2504 Charles Street, and the ritual bathhouse was at 1512 North 25th Street. There were Jewish businesses up and down North 24th Street, and the area was very community-oriented.
White Flight Strikes
White flight came early to this section of North Omaha. Starting in the 1920s, the white people began moving out and away from the Near North Side, including the Swedes, Germans, English and others who’d initially settled there. After the lynching of Will Brown in 1919, the Near North Side was redlined by real estate agents, insurance brokers, banks and landowners who wanted to ensure white supremacy continued. After World War II, there were very few white families left in the Near North Side around 20th and Lake. However, an emerging Black middle class were buying fine homes and the Jewish community still had a strong foothold in the area.
- This is a white woman moving her Omaha home in 1963.
When the riots struck in 1966, ’68 and ’69, the neighborhood around 20th and Lake was struck hard. The remaining commercial building on the southwest corner of the intersection was vandalized, and several buildings up Lake and on Florence Boulevard were hit.
By 1970, the intersection at North 20th and Lake Streets was radically different than it was just two decades earlier. With the demise of the Goodlett Building, the construction of the new Lake Elementary School, and the usage of Lake School as a special school for the Omaha school district, the neighborhood changed rapidly.
Along the way, the City of Omaha has been conducting “slum clearances” almost every decade, starting in the late 1930s when the demolished a number of affordable houses in the area where they built the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects. After that, the bulldozers kept churning around 20th and Lake, plowing over fine homes and tiny houses all the same. Sometimes they’ve replaced them, like on the site southeast of 20th and Lake; oftentimes, they’ve left them empty. Its happening all over the neighborhood now.
- Spahn Transfer and Storage was located at 1020 N. 21st Street in North Omaha, Nebraska. They might’ve moved many white people from the 20th and Lake neighborhood during the years of white flight.
In 1890, the student population at Lake School was almost exclusively white, with mostly English, Scandinavian and Jewish students. Black students started attending after 1900, and the school was about 50/50 by 1930. In that era, Lake School was one of Omaha’s four Black schools, enforced through de facto segregation. By 1965, it was a completely segregated school. By the 1970s, the Omaha Public Schools had made it into a special education school, with every student identified as a special education student. In 1984, the Seventh Day Adventists started operating the building as the Dorthea Fullwood School. It ran that way for several years afterwards. The building was converted into the Fullwood Court Apartments, and today stays that way.
According to the Omaha Public Schools’ “Making Invisible Histories Visible” project, when the Omaha Fire Department was formally desegregated in 1957, the only remaining black station was Engine Station 14 at 2032 Lake Street, just off the intersection. The black firefighters from there were moved to other fire stations throughout the city, and white firefighters moved into Station 14. The station’s second floor was removed in the 1970s, and today the building is the proud home of the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters. They formed in 1974 to challenge discrimination within the fire department and to lead community outreach programs, and continue today.
Today, nonprofit organizations continue to meet many of the the neighborhood’s needs. The nearby St. Benedict’s School has been repurposed as a community center and the Hope Center for Kids provides essential learning opportunities activities for neighborhood children and youth.
- A History of the 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado
- A History of the 24th and Lake Historic District
- A History of the Intersection of 16th and Locust
- A History of Ak-Sar-Ben in North Omaha
- These are the Fullwood Court Apartments at N. 20th and Willis Streets. Originally built as the 2nd Lake School, it was a special education school for a short time period.
- The first theatrical presentation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in Omaha was in December 1890. The performance was a reading from the book as part of a Christmas program put on by the Lake School, one of Omaha’s earliest schools. Lake School was located on the Near North Side, at 2410 North 19th Street. The student who read from Dickens was Beatrice Ball.
- The Dolea Fullwood School at N 20th and Willis Streets ran from the 1980s through the 2000s.
- This is a second grade classroom at Lake School in 1904.
- This is an 8th grade classroom at Lake School in North Omaha in 1914.